Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Volunteer to Transcribe Menus for the New York Public Library

I've been on a long hiatus of late, but I've not stopped thinking about bygone food.

The New York Public Library is looking for volunteers to transcribe thousands of historical restaurant menus. The team intends to digitize the menus as well, but older handwriting styles and fanciful typefaces make it difficult for those conducting research in the collection--historians, novelists, and everyday people who want to know about old menus--to search the texts for key terms.

Sign on. Think of all the menus you'll get to see.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Cocke 'n Kettle

Some are trapped in the '70s, but it takes a lot of talent to embody both the 1970s and the 1770s. The old Cocke 'n Kettle restaurant in Uxbridge, Massachusetts managed to keep its feet in both of those decades.

A fixture in the Blackstone Valley for almost forty years, the Cocke 'n Kettle closed in 2008. Before that happened, however, people came for the famous popovers and the plentiful hors d'ouevres in the cocktail lounge.

You might say that the Cocke 'n Kettle attracted an older, less-than-hip clientele. My fondest memory of the restaurant is watching my great-aunt dance in the lounge at her sister's seventy-fifth birthday party in 1995. That was the only time in my life I ever indulged in a Southern Comfort Manhattan, a drink that you did not (and do not) see among the 21-34 year-old set in greater Providence or Boston.

Yet I prefer to think that the fans of the Cocke 'n Kettle simply appreciated being treated well. The hors d'ourvres in the lounge or the corn fritters at the dinner table were signs that the restaurant respected its patrons and wanted them to leave satisfied and happy. The Sampsons really looked upon customers as welcome guests in their home.

The interior of the Cocke 'n Kettle reinforced that feeling. In many ways the Cocke 'n Kettle was like an actual home. Part of the restaurant was a colonial-era mansion. Visitors took advantage of dining in all the house's various and distinctive rooms.

But people didn't come just to eat in an old farm building. The decor of the Cocke 'n Kettle, which constituted a much appreciated and very specific kind of colonial revival, reinforced new ideas about what it meant to go out to eat. The Cocke 'n Kettle did not re-create the building's past so much as it exemplified an early-1970s interpretation of how to celebrate the colonial period while accommodating the social mores of a society that was becoming increasingly less formal.

In the rooms of the Cocke 'n Kettle you saw two revolutions: the American Revolution and the social revolution of the 1960s/1970s. The dark woods and studded leather chairs spoke to what the owners imagined to be the more rustic or simpler ideals of the colonial and Revolutionary periods. Yet those same wood beams and chairs also provided patrons with a homey feel that allowed them a special night out that was neither stuffy nor overly formal. In harkening to the image of an older New England, the Cocke 'n Kettle created an atmosphere that facilitated the easy yet tasteful socializing that men and women desired in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I've no doubt in my mind that the combined effects of low lighting, dark leather, and British plaid in the lounge gave many the necessary courage to meet new friends or to chat up potential dates. (The short skirts sported by the young waitresses probably didn't hurt either. Today, you just don't find such "clean cut little beavers" eager "to add to your gourmet entertainment." Well, not in a place you could bring your parents anyway.)

The decor and the menu never really changed. I like to think that faithful customers appreciated that they could return to this little reminder of the sense of social change or freedom they were feeling when the Sampson family established the Cocke 'n Kettle in 1971.

I am fortunate to have a flyer that was probably printed around the time the restaurant opened as the Cocke 'n Kettle. Actually, I have two copies. My grandmother and my great-aunt, for whatever reason, both saved them. I hope the photos from the flyer help to illustrate my point.